NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Tennessee's juvenile judges are sounding the alarm about what they describe as a "crisis" inside the state's juvenile justice system.
The resolution, quietly passed in January by the executive committee for the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, places blame on the Department of Children's Services, the very agency that's supposed to help the state's most troubled children.
"Our state now has fewer appropriate treatment beds than what is needed to address the serious and varied problems experienced by our children," the judges say in the resolution obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
"This reduction in treatment facilities has reached a crisis stage and ... has a direct impact upon public safety and child welfare."
The judges call it an "alarming trend."
NewsChannel 5 showed the report to state Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat who sits on two committees with responsibility for reviewing DCS legislation and operations.
"Just like any health scare, any natural disaster, this is the same kind of disaster -- and we are doing it to our children in this state," Mitchell said.
"It's alarming. They know there's a problem. I think they've know there was a problem for quite some time."
In a written statement, DCS Commissioner Jennifer Nichols said that she met with several judges on the executive committee after she received the resolution.
"At that meeting, I shared both our efforts already underway and our future plans for increasing the number of appropriate treatment beds for delinquent youth," Nichols said.
"In addition, I shared the fact that I’ve initiated a placement needs assessment for the entire state to include weigh-in by the judges. When the meeting wrapped up, several of the judges indicated that had they known about the information I shared, their resolution may not have been necessary.
DCS is responsible for young offenders who, juvenile judges believe, need to be locked away for treatment and rehabilitation.
But after the agency experienced unrest at its prison-like Youth Development Centers (YDCs) five years ago, it moved to a different model.
The number of state-operated centers is down from three to one - with less than 150 high-security beds available statewide, the judges note.
"Perhaps more alarmingly," the resolution warns, "there are currently no Youth Development Centers dedicated to the rehabilitation of female youth."
Nichols told NewsChannel 5 in November that the number of children sent to the agency had gone down.
"What has gone up is the number of people that we are placing in YDCs that have very violent offenses," Nichols said.
Nichols had admitted that DCS may not have the right mix of beds.
"Nothing is more important to me than trying to get this ratio where it needs to be," the commissioner said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you think it is where it needs to be?"
"I'm not sure, I'm not sure that it is," Nichols admitted.
In fact, even after a judge orders troubled juveniles to be sent to DCS, the resolution notes that troubled children as young as 14 have been kept in juvenile detention for as much as four months awaiting transfer to a treatment facility.
In some cases, NewsChannel 5 discovered, they may even be locked up in what amounts to solitary confinement.
Right now, three DCS facilities in Davidson County currently sit empty after TrueCore, the contractor that operated them, pulled out of Tennessee
As a result, the resolution says, "Children are languishing in detention awaiting a suitable bed. This is intolerable."
Rep. Mitchell warned that there are long-term ramifications for this situation.
"You're creating a bigger problem and probably creating a bigger issue that that child is going to cost you even more money in the system because of your lack of attention to addressing their needs," he added.
And after offenders complete their initial treatment, the judges warn, children are not getting the help they need.
"Often these children have nowhere to go due to the lack of congregate care or step-down facilities, resulting in children being inappropriately placed in foster care or returned prematurely to the home," the resolution continues.
"Many of these children have violent tendencies and are not ready to be placed into foster care or returned home. The result is often disturbances in school and/or continued delinquent behavior."
Mitchell said the consequences for the public are severe.
"You're putting the public at risk by putting these violent youth back into our community," he continued.
The juvenile judges also note that, in some cases, offenders are being shipped out of state for treatment - at great expense to Tennessee taxpayers.
According to the resolution, children have been sent to treatment facilities in Texas, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia and Florida.
Nashville mother Cleovonta Kirkendoll that NewsChannel 5 Investigates that DCS even considered sending her son Dewayne to Alaska for treatment.
DCS eventually sent him to Iowa.
"If I visit, my child, it would take me two days," Kirkendoll said.
"That's the whole weekend. It would take me two days to get there. By the time I get there, it's time for me to fly right back. I wouldn't have no time with my son."
Even though she had been promised that Dewayne could Skype home every day, Kirkendoll said she didn't hear from him for months.
"And then I can hear the distress in my son's voice when he calls home, 'Mama we're not getting done right up here, we're being mistreated.'"
Such out-of-state treatment, the judges say, "creates great, usually insurmountable difficulties for families in exercising visitation and participating in the child's rehabilitation and for the court in holding periodic reviews."
"Again, this is intolerable."
Kirkendoll said, "The only reason that DCS kept in touch with my son is because I told them I will not play these games with y'all - period. Don't play with me about my son. He's not a lost cause."
While natural disasters are largely beyond our control, the juvenile justice crisis is a on-going disaster that, advocates say, could be avoided.
"Everyone always says we're going to try to fix it, we're going to try to correct this," Rep. Mitchell said.
"It never seems to happen. Until we make it a major priority, you're going to continue to have issues like this and that's sad."
The resolution also urges lawmakers to consider putting the juvenile justice programs into a separate department - separating it from the part of DCS that deals with children with mental health needs and children in foster care.
It's an idea that Commissioner Nichols told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that she was open to considering.
Below is the full statement from Commissioner Nichols:
"While I was not provided the opportunity to review the resolution or even discuss the juvenile court judges’ concerns before the resolution was drafted, I requested a meeting and have since met with several of the juvenile court judges on the executive committee. First, each judge indicated that the issues did not arise under Governor Lee’s administration nor my tenure as Commissioner. They attribute the issues to a succession of actions taken years ago. Nevertheless, at that meeting, I shared both our efforts already underway and our future plans for increasing the number of appropriate treatment beds for delinquent youth. In addition, I shared the fact that I’ve initiated a placement needs assessment for the entire state to include weigh-in by the judges. When the meeting wrapped up, several of the judges indicated that had they known about the information I shared, their resolution may not have been necessary."
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